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Jesse Payne at a patch in Ottawa. Photo by Lucy Martin.
Jesse Payne at a patch in Ottawa. Photo by Lucy Martin.

"Landless" vegetable patch grows in Ottawa

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Community Supported, or Shared, Agriculture - CSAs for short - are growing, spreading even into cities, where garden space is at a premium.

Customers typically sign up to buy shares of the season's production. They get fresh, local produce while growers get improved financial security. Sellers and buyers often enjoy getting to know each other on a personal level too.

A landless CSA in Ottawa has just finished its third season. Using a website, social media and word-of-mouth publicity, VegetablePatch founder Jesse Payne has found a ready supply of urban homeowners with yard space they're willing to share. Payne says there's real excitement about combining good eating with better land use.

Lucy Martin got an on-site tour to learn more.

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Reported by

Lucy Martin
Ottawa Correspondent

Jesse Payne and I meet on a leafy street in Alta Vista, four miles from Parliament Hill. It's a nice neighborhood, with light traffic and conventional lawns.

We head to the very back of a surprisingly deep city lot. 

Reporter: “Oh, it's beautiful!”

Farthest from the house is a 30 by 40 foot plot of beets, kale and lettuce. They're in dappled shade, but some crops prefer that, and Payne says the site gets plenty of full sun in summer.

Property owners like this one sign up for three-year commitments. VegetablePatch will reimburse for any higher water use, but Payne says that's never come up so far. 

It's been a decent season, including a frost-free September. They managed 17 weeks of basket service.

“Last year I delivered right to people's homes, which was a lot of fun!” Payne says.  “I mean, I kind of felt like the Easter Bunny, at certain points, you know, sneaking in and dropping off a basket of goodies – under the cover of darkness!”

Right now most of the hands-on work is being done by Payne's colleagues, Kirsten and Genevieve. Payne's been busy with web design and parenting his first baby. With time at a premium, they've switched to set distribution points, in Centretown and Westboro.

Payne says volunteers come too, “Just getting out – in the fresh air – and spending time in the garden is very therapeutic. We get a lot of people out that live in apartment buildings and have no access to a garden and this presents that opportunity.”

Payne aims for efficiency: decent-sized plots, clustered nearby. He's got twelve in all, this season.

 Some offers of land space are too small, or out-of-the-way.  For those, Payne's hoping to set up  connections that would help would-be gardeners craft their own private sharing arrangements.

Payne used to be in high tech, until his job got sent overseas, “I'm not sure if I heard about it somewhere else or not. I mean, the idea came to me when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, after I got out of high tech.  My ideals were being outside, working for myself and starting something that was in line with my values, and this is what came out of it.”

The change has brought Payne full circle, to his childhood in Carleton Place, “We always had a huge garden, a lot of my friends were farmers, ‘cause we're from a farming community.  So I mean, I grew up with this, sort of honestly.  It's just come back to me, I mean it's something that I'm really passionate about and spending time in the garden has never been a problem for me at all! It's been nothing but pure joy.”

As business models go, this remains a work in progress. It's hard to make money farming, or with any new start-up. But Payne thinks something like this can produce a modest income. Knowing how to make a website, and use social media, helps. Payne says, “Literally, within 2 hours of putting up the website, there was a web forum, chatting about VegetablePatch (Reporter:“That fast?”) Yeah, and within three hours I had my first call and offer of land which resulted in a giant, 4,000 square-foot garden.”

Payne's not worried about saturating the market. “People need food. That's what I say when people contact me about starting up the same sort of thing, I'm like 'No, there's plenty of room, don't worry about it'.”   He says other CSAs have contacted himto ask abour sharing dropoff spots, or they’d be infringing on his turf, “but I say no. I mean, we can share.”

As we leave, Pam Fitch meets us on her deck. “Well, I'd like to say it was really lofty goals about organic gardening and everything,” she says,  admitting, “it was really my husband's idea. He saw an article in the newspaper, and contacted Jesse, because we have a huge back yard, and basically (whispers) he didn't want to mow the lawn! So we lent the land with a lot of pleasure.”

It's been three years now, and she's sold, “It gives us a sense of community and participation, so we're having all the benefits of the garden without having to do the work!  I love the deliveries of fresh food too, that's awesome.” (Reporter: “So you have it all – you get the yard, the garden.”) “I tell you!  What wrong with this picture?  You're always going to be here, right? Jesse?” (Laughs, as Jesse,  says “Absolutely!”)

Who knows? It could be the start of a mini land-rush.

“We're building a community,” Payne says.  “Something that, you know, can perpetuate itself.  And spreading by word and getting more people involved in growing food.”

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Lucy Martin in Ottawa.

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